Lost Treasures in the Sierra Foothills: The Wines of Renaissance Vineyards

Soon after gold was discovered in California in 1848, and word spread east, more than 80,000 prospectors descended upon the foothills of the Sierras in search of their fortunes. Most only found hardship and broken dreams. Almost as soon as the Gold Rush began, stories began to circulate about “lost mines,” rich troves of gold that were never to be found again when their discoverers met with misfortune. Even today an occasional prospector still goes in search of these forgotten treasures.

What would you think if I told you that the legends of a massive treasure buried in the foothills were true? But instead of far up a hidden valley, this treasure lies stacked in the dusty dark corners of a building that was itself something of a failed dream. Instead of gold, this treasure takes the form of thousands of bottles of some of the most terroir-driven wine that has ever been produced in the history of California winemaking.

The story of how these amazing bottles came to be gathering dust instead of adorning the wine lists of America’s finest restaurants is as strange as it is remarkable.

It begins with a man named Robert Earl Burton, a charismatic spiritual teacher who founded an organization known as the Fellowship of Friends. This group is registered as a non-profit religious organization in the State of California, but anyone who is no longer a member will likely describe it as a cult. Members are expected to tithe 10% of their income to the organization; like many such organizations it has found itself accused of everything from tax evasion to the sexual misconduct of its leader (those charges were settled out of court); and Burton has supposedly issued several near-Doomsday prophesies over the years as well as purportedly arranging marriages for his followers.

In 1971, Burton purchased 1300 acres of land in the heart of Yuba County just outside of a tiny town called Oregon House that once served as a rest stop for weary Gold Rush travelers after they crossed the nearby Yuba River. On this massive, undeveloped piece of land, which he christened Apollo, Burton set out to make an oasis, a sanctuary, and in the words of his followers, “a new civilization.” With the help (both financial and physical) of his nearly 2000 followers, Burton constructed his vision of a Mediterranean paradise of old, with many buildings, gardens, a roman amphitheater, and even a private zoo (the property is still home to 24 camels). If you’ve ever been to Hearst Castle or seen Citizen Kane, just imagine something slightly less grand, and you’ll get the picture.

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Part of Burton’s vision for his Mediterranean paradise involved planting olive trees and grapevines. Olive trees are relatively easy to plant, and they went into the ground by the thousands. Grape vines are another thing altogether.

Burton found among his followers a young lady named Diana Stefanini who was attending UC Davis and studying renewable natural resources. “At the beginning,” she said, “there wasn’t even a well. It was all just natural vegetation. I could figure out what soils to plant with vines, but I didn’t know which kind of vines.” Nobody else in the Fellowship knew either.

But then a few Fellowship members heard that the Nut Tree, an iconic (and still thriving today) restaurant and way station in the nearby Sacramento valley was about to begin serving wine, and as a result had hired a fairly famous winemaker consultant to help them create their wine list. Several members went down to the Nut Tree to see if they could get this man to come up and take a look.

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That man was Dr. Karl Werner, who was moonlighting at the Nut Tree while pursuing his primary commission which involved helping some guy named Robert Mondavi with his young winery in Napa. Werner was a consultant in relatively high demand, having helped to start Chateau Grand Traverse in Michigan and consulted everywhere from South Africa to the private estate of the Shah of Persia. Werner had emigrated from Germany where his family had farmed their estate Schloss Groenesteyn since it was deeded to them in 1411 by Pippin the Short, son of Charlemagne.

“His father had to give the estate to the Nazis in the war to save his wife,” said Stefanini. “His wife, Karl’s mother, was Jewish. Karl didn’t speak about his past because it was very unhappy.”

The young Stefanini was well prepared when Dr. Werner finally agreed to make a visit to the Fellowship’s compound in 1976.

“I was there and I had all my charts, and maps and soil samples and soil pits” recalled Stefanini. “He looked at the charts for about 30 seconds. Then he jumped down into the soil pit and tasted the soil. He spat it out and said, ‘yes, we can do this.'”

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Almost immediately, Dr. Werner left to go to his next consulting project at Callaway Vineyards in the Temecula Valley, but not before giving instructions to the Fellowship on how to plant the vines. And so they planted. A lot of them. At its height, the estate contained 365 acres of vines planted on nearly 200 miles of terraces carved out nearly 360 degrees around a decomposing red granite dome that sits at the back of the property, high above the Yuba River canyon. The scale of the terraforming involved was simply staggering, especially considering the completely unproven nature of the region when it came to growing grapes.

The Renaissance Vineyard and Winery estate was planted with scores of different grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Sangiovese, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Franc, Tempranillo, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, Riesling, and more.

In the course of this massive project, Stefanini had both switched her major to Enology and been called down to help Werner at Callaway when the existing winemaker there had heart problems. The two returned to Oregon House in 1978, bringing with them cuttings from Callaway’s vineyards. Stefanini and Dr. Werner then got married, and together constructed the winery on the property and began making wines.

In 1983, driven primarily by the desire to be able to write “Estate Bottled” on the label (something which could only be done on AVA designated wines at the time) Stefanini applied for and received one of the state’s first American Viticultural Area designations. The tiny North Yuba AVA basically covered the Fellowship’s property and a bit of the surrounding area. Even today, it is only home to four wine producers.

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Soon after wine production was in full swing, Dr. Werner grew ill, eventually passing away in 1988, leaving Stefanini to make the wines from 1988 until 1993 when she handed that responsibility over to another member of the Fellowship, a young Israeli artist by the name of Gideon Beinstock.

Beinstock was, by his own account, a fairly famous artist in Israel. Famous enough to make a living off of his paintings, and to develop a flamboyant lifestyle that he quickly came to despise. In a moment of existential crisis he fled Israel for Paris and discovered the writings of George Gurdjieff and his student P. D. Ouspensky. These led him to the Fellowship, as Burton’s teachings are built on the work done by these two esoteric spiritualists.

In addition to falling for the Fellowship while in Paris, Beinstock became obsessed with wine. “I got the wine bug bad,” he said. “I did everything that a person could do without working in a winery. I befriended winemakers, drank wine, visited wineries.” He even studied for and passed the theoretical portion of the MW exam.

His enthusiasm for wine made him a natural to sell the first vintages of Renaissance Vineyard’s wines that were exported to Europe, but then in 1991 he got the invitation to come out to Oregon House, and moved to California.

“When I moved, they asked me if I wanted to keep selling the wines and I said ‘No, I want to work in the winery,’ recalled Beinstock. ‘Even at that point I wasn’t thinking I was going to be a winemaker, I just wanted to understand it better. But once my first fermentation got started, I knew I was home. I felt like I was melting down from the inside out. I fell in love with the magic of that process.”

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When Beinstock arrived, Stefanini was making the wines but had remarried and soon after, gotten pregnant.

“I was there for one year, and then she went off to have her baby,” said Beinstock, “and the winery basically landed in my lap. I freaked out. I completely panicked. I didn’t go to school, all I had done was read Peynaud. I was panicked. But I was also thrilled and exhilarated.”

Whether by dint of his obsession with wine, his artistic temperament, or simply some innate, instinctive talent, Beinstock was able to take the raw materials that Renaissance had assembled and forge them into something incredible. His first vintage as a solo winemaker was 1993, and the wines are shockingly good, even today. Once he had the confidence of Burton and others at the Fellowship, Beinstock immediately converted the entire property to organic viticulture, and did away with what he saw as Dr. Werner’s rather heavy handed approaches to winemaking, including cultured German “super yeasts.”

Beinstock got rid of many of the less successful grape varieties and focused on Bordeaux Blends and Rhone varieties, along with the late harvest wines that Dr. Werner had been making since the earliest vintages. Beinstock did retain one practice instituted by Dr. Werner, however, and that was the very long maturation of wine both in the barrel, and in the bottle before release.

This was easy because Renaissance Winery didn’t behave like a normal commercial winery.

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“One of the basic characteristics of the Fellowship,” said Beinstock, “is that it is not a business. It is not an organization that has materialistic ambitions of any kind. They try something, and then two minutes later they say, ‘no we’re not trying that.’ When you try to run a business in that context, it’s quite challenging.”

Burton, and those of the Fellowship that ran the winery at his behest, never acted as if it needed to be commercially viable. And it most certainly has never been. Salespeople have come and gone, the winery has poured its wines at wine events around the state, but there has never been a CFO or an owner pushing for the winery to break even, let alone turn a profit.

Today, all but around 50 acres of vines have been ripped out, and cattle graze on hillsides of golden grasses that are not so overgrown that you can’t see the terraces underneath, like remnants of an ancient civilization. Indeed, whatever passes for the civilization that Burton built seems that it has passed its height. The Fellowship lives on, albeit with reduced numbers, and thousands of cases of wine lie stacked in boxes and crates in the winery.

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Beinstock became disillusioned with the Fellowship starting in about 2000, but continued making wines until 2006, though not without some difficulties, illustrated by situations like the 2003 harvest. Right in the middle of harvest, the then-president of the winery called a halt to the operation despite Beinstock’s protests and without explanation.

Officially listed as winemaker until 2010, Beinstock’s last hands-on influence in the winery was with the 2006 vintage when he finally left the Fellowship for good. From 2007 to 2012, winemaking was done by someone else, and somewhat haphazardly, to the point that very little wine may have made it to bottles in those years.

The Fellowship of Friends and the Renaissance Winery recently got both a new President and a new winemaker, and in an effort to make the operation commercially viable for the first time in its history, the decision has been made to change the style of Renaissance’s wines. The new winemaker Eddie Schulten, has been a long time member of the fellowship, and in fact has been making his own wines from the Renaissance property since the late 80s, in recent years under a label called Grant & Eddie.

Schulten studied with famed enologist Emile Peynaud in Europe before returning to California in the 80s and joining the fellowship.

I asked Schulten how he was thinking about the Renaissance wines, and his approach to winemaking moving forward.

“I don’t really know what Gideon [Beinstock] did. I’ve been making my own wine since ’86 in a different style, and I’m personally more inclined to make wines that are going a bit more with the fashion — more approachable at an earlier age. I’m still trying to get the essence of the terroir, but trying to be a bit more expressive in fruit and in fat.”

I can’t tell you how sad this answer made me.

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As I tasted each of the most recent vintages on my visit, including some barrel samples, my heart sank. Where once there were bright crystalline flavors tinged with savory notes I found only rich jammy wines with not enough acidity and too much oak influence. They were modern, fashionable, and all but ordinary. Astonishingly, despite their heavy-handed treatment, there was still no mistaking where they had come from. Even under the thick ripe fruit, they still had a minerality that peeked out and announced itself, undeterred and unapologetic.

For years, I have been convinced that North Yuba is one of California’s most interesting and expressive pieces of terroir. I know of precious few places in California that can truly speak with such a distinctive voice through wine.

Schulten and the Fellowship’s new president, Greg Holman are committed, they say, to turning the winery into a viable commercial business for the first time, perhaps inspired by the olive oil business that Diana Stefanini is now running with the fruit of the property’s many olive trees. As an aside, the oil, which is bottled and sold under the Apollo Olive Oil brand, is exceptional and highly recommended.

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In the service of considering their future, and getting some additional exposure for the wines, the Fellowship invited me up a few weeks ago to taste many, perhaps even a majority of the wines that Renaissance has ever made.

It was an electrifying experience. The quality, longevity, and expression of terroir of which these wines are capable, begins to approach some of the greatest wines of California’s history — think Ridge Montebello, Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, Inglenook, and more. Trust me that I don’t say this lightly. The best vintages of Renaissance are among the most distinctive and unique wines that California has to offer.

If today’s cadre of acid-loving sommeliers in search of the unusual and off-the-beaten-path knew what they could get their hands on for a song in an obscure corner of Yuba County, I suspect Renaissance might not have any trouble selling their stock of older vintages.

The real question is whether once those are sold, if there will ever be wines made of that caliber from this property again. Terroir, after all, lives a life of delicate dependence upon the whims and talents of mankind. We can much more easily obliterate it with our own personalities than let it shine. But when we step back and give it room to express itself, it is truly a treasure.

What follows are notes from what is assuredly the most extensive tasting of Renaissance Vineyards wines ever conducted. I am providing notes on every wine I tasted, and roughly in the order that they were tasted, with some notes grouped together by vintage rather than by varietal. Where there were wines available for sale on the Internet, I have provided links to find them. The truly curious would do well to call up Renaissance, however, and see what might be on offer directly from the winery.

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THE PREHISTORY
While I am told that the idea was always to call the winery Renaissance, many of the earliest red wine bottlings at the estate were made under the Da Vinci label, which would eventually become the winery’s second label. Lacking in volume, some of the earliest efforts were reserved and combined to create non-vintage bottlings.

NV Da Vinci Vineyards Petite Sirah, Sierra Foothills, California
Dark ruby in the glass, this wine smells of prunes, roasted figs, and milk chocolate. In the mouth the wine still has surprising acidity for its age, and a wonderful mineral quality underneath dried cherries, prunes, raisins, and cocoa powder. There’s a silty quality to the tannins. Good length. Still very much alive. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $n/a

NV Da Vinci Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, North Yuba, Sierra Foothills, California
Dark ruby in color with a bit of brick- orange at the rim, this wine smells of dried flowers, leather, nutmeg, and a hint of red fruit. In the mouth, cedar, leather, a bit of potter’s clay and a hint of red berries mix with surprisingly bright acidity for its age. Excellent length, but in the end a bit tired. Powdery smooth tannins. A combination of the 1980, 1981 and 1982 vintage. 14.6% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $n/a

1982 Da Vinci Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Sierra Foothills, California
Dark ruby in color with a hint of orange at the rim, this wine smells of cedar and evergreen boughs and a bit of volatile acidity. In the mouth the wine has a sharp kick of volatile acidity but very nice flavors of cedar and dried cherries and dried pine needles. With a little more air, a hint of TCA creeps in. With no duplicate bottle available, it’s hard to judge fully the potential of this one. 14.1% alcohol Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $n/a

1983 Da Vinci Vineyards Petite Sirah, Sierra Foothills, California
Perfectly dark ruby in color, betraying very little of its 32 years of age, this wine smells of pine duff, dried flowers, and earth. In the mouth the wine has bright, juicy acidity still, and massively thick tannins that wrap around a core of sour cherry fruit mixed with silty river mud. This wine must have been very stiff for the first 20 years of its life, but now the tannins are more pliable, though no less muscular. Surprisingly youthful, but on balance, a bit unforgiving. 12% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $n/a

1983 Da Vinci Vineyards Zinfandel, Sierra Foothills, California
Dark ruby in the glass with brick orange at the rim, this wine smells of leather, orange peel, and pine duff. In the mouth, sour cherry, dried raspberry and flavors of dried flowers are wrapped in a thick blanket of leathery tannins that lingers and clings to the tongue through the finish. Still quite good acidity in this wine, but it has evolved into something more angular, even harsh. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 7.5 and 8. Cost: $n/a

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THE BORDEAUX VARIETIES
The core of the Renaissance portfolio has always been its Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Sauvignon-based blends. Ultimately the fractured granite and the microclimate of the estate seems best suited to this variety above all others, which it imbues with a stunning minerality and elegance. Merlot and Cabernet Franc have proved (with a few exceptions) largely unsuccessful other than blending components, but in some cases those blends have been fantastically good.

1983 Renaissance Vineyard & Winery “Reserve” Cabernet Sauvignon, North Yuba, Sierra Foothills, California
Dark ruby in the glass, with a hint of orange at the rim, this wine smells of sweet cedar, cherry, and leather. In the mouth, prodigious tannins wrap their thick, peanut-buttery hands around a core of pine duff, dried cherries, leather, and forest floor. Good acidity and length, but the tannins are very overpowering. Still, there’s something quite charming about the sweetness of the nose and the savory notes that linger in the finish of the wine along with the crushed stone minerality. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $n/a

1984 Renaissance Vineyard & Winery “Reserve” Cabernet Sauvignon, North Yuba, Sierra Foothills, California
Dark ruby in the glass with orange highlights, this wine smells of carob and forest floor. In the mouth bright dried cherries, cinnamon, cedar, and forest floor flavors are clasped in a tight fist of powdery tannins that coat the mouth and slowly seem to dry the edges of the tongue and cheeks. Notes of cedar linger in the finish along with a crushed stone minerality that is quite pretty. Good acidity. 13% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $74 click to buy.

1985 Da Vinci Vineyards “Reserve” Cabernet Sauvignon, Sierra Foothills, California
Dark ruby with orange highlights, this wine smells of prunes, potters clay, and dried flowers. In the mouth lean, slightly tart flavors of dried red fruits, dried flowers, and leather mix with a deep stony minerality whilst thick leathery tannins maintain a firm grip on the palate. Good acidity and length. 13.11% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $n/a

1986 Renaissance Vineyard & Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, North Yuba, Sierra Foothills, California
Dark ruby in the glass with orange tints, this wine smells of sweet prunes, cedar, and forest floor. In the mouth, gorgeously aromatic flavors of dried cherries, dried flowers, and forest floor have juicy brightness to them even after all these years. Powdery tannins dust the roof and edges of the mouth as the dried flowers and herbs linger through a long finish. A very pretty wine, with still some fruit lingering along with fantastically savory and mineral notes. Remarkable. 13% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $110 click to buy.

1986 Renaissance Vineyard & Winery “Reserve” Cabernet Sauvignon, North Yuba, Sierra Foothills, California
Medium to dark ruby in the glass with orange highlights, this wine smells of cedar, raspberries, dried flowers and forest floor. In the mouth, juicy acidity brings flavors of orange peel, dried flowers, leather, and pine duff to life on the palate, while a leathery blanket of tannins drapes over the palate. The tannins go on to coat the mouth like chalk dust, while dried herbs and flowers linger in the finish. 13% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $n/a

1987 Renaissance Vineyard & Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, North Yuba, Sierra Foothills, California
Medium to dark ruby with an orange cast, this wine smells of cedar, dried orange peel, pine duff and earth, with a faint sweetness to it. In the mouth, sour cherry, crushed stones, dried flowers, and cedar have a wonderful lightness to them, with powdery tannins that hang on the edge of the palate. Great length and brightness. Very pretty. 13% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $n/a

1987 Renaissance Vineyard & Winery “Reserve” Cabernet Sauvignon, North Yuba, Sierra Foothills, California
Medium to dark ruby in the glass, this wine smells of leather, cedar, dried herbs, and a hint of farmyard funk. In the mouth, juicy leather, dried cherry, and dried herbs flavors are wrapped in a suede blanket of tannins. Excellent acidity still, and a wonderful underlying minerality, with a hint of animal quality in the finish. Interesting, but more rustic than usual. 13% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $ n/a

1988 Renaissance Vineyard & Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, North Yuba, Sierra Foothills, California
Medium to dark orange-red in the glass, this wine smells of sweet, meaty cherry and red miso. In the mouth, beautiful red miso, forest floor and dried cherries are layered over a wonderful crushed stone minerality. Fantastic acidity still lingers in the wine, making for a mouthwatering dried flower and river mud finish. Excellent, and stunning in its longevity. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $n/a

1993 Renaissance Vineyard & Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, North Yuba, Sierra Foothills, California
Medium to dark ruby in the glass with an orange tinge to it, this wine smells of bacon fat and sweet cherry and cedar. In the mouth, sweet cherry and cedar flavors tinged with smoked bacon and forest floor have a wonderfully smooth, taut tannin backdrop on the palate. Excellent acidity and minerality linger in the wine’s long, dried flower finish. Excellent and quite delicious. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $145 click to buy.

1993 Renaissance Vineyard & Winery Merlot, North Yuba, Sierra Foothills, California
Dark ruby with a hint of orange in the glass, this wine smells of dark, smoky, cherry and plum. In the mouth sweet plum and smoky strawberry flavors have an incredible smooth complexion. Powdery tannins hang about the edges of the mouth with a sl